The rich and varied history of London’s artist-run spaces over the last two decades provides multiple opportunities to consider the value and impact of such initiatives, and to reflect on how they have evolved. Beyond clichéd references to the ‘frontier spirit’—of those intent on forging new possibilities for themselves and their peers—there is potential to engage in a deeper understanding of the personal motivations behind ‘starting a space’, and consider the social or political imperatives that define the need for self-organisation within the artistic community.
To step back and take stock throws up a paradox within the temporary nature of such activities, namely the simultaneous desire to historicise, by archiving and embalming the character and productivity of the venture, and to make it available for consideration beyond its often brief lifespan. This instinct is perhaps a betrayal, in that it departs from the basic (and perhaps illusory) premise of a contingent space driven by impulse rather than design. Such manoeveres resonate with an institutional need to freeze-frame and assimilate the shifting or the generative. It equally raises the spectre of self-mythologising careerism, which implies a loss of faith in the abiding efficacy of a project developed for and by a community who experienced and benefited from it first hand.
Given this niggling doubt, it is difficult to approach this publication with scepticism. Compiled by founders Luke Gottelier and Francis Upritchard, it commemorates the activities of the eponymous artist-run space. The ‘Institute’ occupied a semi-derelict three-floor warehouse in Hackney, between winter 2001 and spring 2003. It hosted eight group exhibitions and enlisted several key contributing artists and curators, including Harry Pye, Sam Basu, Brian Griffiths and David Thorpe. The space also housed a music and film programme, at one point had an ‘artist in residence’, and produced regular pamphlets to accompany its activities.
Under the guise of this fully-fledged institutional programming, the squatted building’s barely traversable interior, encrusted with pigeon shit, created a driving force for art production and exhibition-making which was poised between the basest of means. In loosely themed shows the lo-fi and handmade did battle with crumbling architecture, the resulting sensibility often veering between dystopic fantasy and wonky humour. Despite the challenging scope of the exhibition space, and the considerable number of exhibited artists, Bart Wells maintained a distinct identity that followed closely from Gottelier and Upritchard’s own work: a measured and eccentric absurdity, which delighted in the off-kilter, the vulgar, and the deliberately uneven. Curators came from within Gottelier and Upritchard’s close circle of friends, while the rugged space and scarcity of resources seemed to provide a productive grit that created some memorable and theatrical approaches. Harry Pye’s Viva Pablo asked artists to contribute work that could have been made by Picasso if he hadn’t died in 1973, while David Thorpe’s The Fragile Underground, the most conspicuously ‘curated’ of all the shows, assembled works around a communitarian modernism aesthetic.
Bart Wells Institute, the publication, is chronologically structured, using pages from the periodicals produced for each show alongside installation images, flyers, handwritten notes, and a collection of interviews and testimonies by associated artists and writers. Designed by åbäke, the scrapbook approach sidesteps any emphasis on the individual intention behind each project, instead choosing to level photographic documentation with personal ephemera, that illuminates the relationships which characterised the gallery.
While the desire to formally frame such a frantic and rich period for a wider public could be seen as a form of nostalgic self-aggrandisement, the book succeeds in moving far beyond these concerns. The reproduced materials act as landmarks for a series of interviews in which various members of the ‘Bart Wells Gang’ reminisce about their experience of the space. These candid texts group together to form an honest consideration of the aspirations and conflicting motivations that drive an artist-run gallery. There is no attempt to theorise or to nominate a radical position for the project. The constant point of reference is the basis of friendship that gave value to the space’s existence, and allowed for the display of work to become an ambitious point of exchange. Equally, there are clear contradictions within the act of inviting artists to exhibit under such conditions (tellingly, the book’s closing interview with David Thorpe describes his fractious experience as curator of the final exhibition, which led to undermined friendships and an instinct to avoid ever taking on this role again).
If the drive to cement an image of an artist-run space is seemingly anathema to the principles of the self-organised and the anti-institutional, this conversational approach sheds light on our contemporary experience of such spaces as deeply contradictory and compromised. At a time when non-profit spaces were increasingly shaped by the need to display levels of professionalism (and the gap duly narrowed between such projects and a burgeoning commercial sector), the Bart Wells Institute and this subsequent publication offer a vital model of openness; a caricature of both the institution and the artist-run space, which is balanced in a constant state of becoming that is both frustrating and invigorating.
Richard Birkett is assistant curator at the ICA, London